Rookies to Rugby Pros

USA Rugby Vice-Chairman, Bob Latham, author of the forthcoming book “Winners & Losers”, accepted the International Rugby Board Development Award for 2011 for the USA Rookie Rugby youth program at the star-studded IRB Awards Ceremony on Sunday October 23 in Auckland. Here’s Bob’s account of the program and a great night out with the world’s rugby community.
In his best-selling and insightful book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell concluded that it takes somewhere around 10,000 hours of training and playing a sport to really have a chance of mastering it. That’s one of the reasons that Americans have found it so difficult historically to be competitive on the world stage in sports such as soccer and rugby – our players arrive late to these sports, sometimes in their teens, many picking up a rugby ball for the first time at university. They may be great athletes but when the real pressure comes, they don’t have 10,000 hours of developing their skills to rely upon. Meanwhile, the All Blacks, France, South Africa, England and others are successful at rugby because their players start playing at six years old. And when they reach the age at which Americans have just started to pick up the sport, they are complete players, ready to compete for positions on World Cup squads. In America, our young kids pick up a basketball, a football or a baseball when they are children and the 10,000 hour clock starts ticking.

The inroads that soccer has made in the last generation, well before Gladwell’s theory, started allowing young players to get their 10,000 hours of work and therefore the U.S. has become increasingly competitive against traditional soccer nations such as Argentina, Brazil, England and Germany, though the men still have a way to go to win the first World Cup and the women are being challenged by the rise of other nations as they were by Japan this year. However, with the institution of USA Rugby’s Rookie Rugby program, a non-contact version of the game that was introduced in 2008, we are starting to give young players a chance to get at least somewhere close to 10,000 hours. The program is an introduction to the game for boys and girls aged 6-10 years; it’s easy to coach, fun to play and promotes not only rugby skills but health, fitness, team spirit, loyalty and respect – the hallmarks of rugby around the world. The timing of the rollout of USA Rugby’s Rookie Rugby program was fortuitous, as it preceded by only one year rugby’s inclusion into the Olympics, which resulted in athletic directors and community sports administrators having a greater interest in rugby. The confluence of these two events means that in 2011, over 500,000 young players will be picking up a rugby ball and running with it for the first time in schools, boys and girls clubs, state-based rugby organizations and YMCA’s across America.

It was therefore an incredible thrill for everyone involved with USA Rugby, and particularly those involved with the Rookie Rugby program, that the program was recognized in a huge way by the International Rugby Board. This last week, the night after the Rugby World Cup final in Auckland, New Zealand, the annual International Rugby Board Awards Gala Dinner was held. The dinner, especially in a World Cup year, draws all of the good and the great in the global game and it features the presentation of twelve awards, including “team of the year” which naturally went to the All Blacks, “player of the year,” which went to France’s valiant Thierry Dusautoir, and “sevens player of the year” which went to South Africa’s dynamic Cecil Afrika. Among such great rugby company, the IRB Development Award went to USA Rugby’s Rookie Rugby program.

IRB Awards Rookie Rugby Video (1:40 mins)

Judging by the reception in the room, it was a popular choice. It is clear that the global rugby family wants USA Rugby to succeed and the reaction after the announcement of the award was supportive and positive.

The night itself provided some exhilarating moments. The first crowd pleaser was when All Blacks’ captain Richie McCaw walked down the center isle of the black tie dinner for 1200, carrying the William Webb Ellis trophy. It might be suggested that he resembled a bride at a wedding with flash bulbs popping in every direction, but he carried himself more like someone bringing in the haggis at a Scottish banquet.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the evening immediately followed the presentation of the IRB Development Award to USA Rugby when the Vernon Pugh Award for Distinguished Service was presented to an ailing Jock Hobbs, former All Blacks captain and former Chairman of the New Zealand Rugby Union, who was largely responsible for getting the World Cup in New Zealand. Seeing Jock at so many of the World Cup matches and events was an inspiration to all. The spirit of the room was carried back to the bar at the Sky City Grand Hotel where current New Zealand Rugby Chairman and All Black great Bryan Williams led a sing-a-long with his guitar up to, and through, last call.

That USA Rugby was recognized by and among such company is a tribute to all the dedicated staff at USA Rugby and the support they have received from coaches, teachers and parents across the country in making the Rookie Rugby program a success. We owe them all a great deal of thanks for their support. Winning the Rugby World Cup may still be a ways away, but at least the 10,000 hour clock is ticking.

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Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts is founder of Red Rose Consulting; business leader and educator; author and speaker; adviser on marketing, creative thinking and leadership.


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